Monday, September 18, 2017

Acts 17:1-15 ”The Gospel makes you Mad or Glad“

Last  time  we saw that  the apostle Paul and his travelling  companions,Silas, Timothy, and now also Luke, the writer of this epistle[1],  were  directed by the Holy Spirit  in this second missionary journey[2], as they had to abandon all their own plans , submitting to the new direction in which the Holy Spirit was now leading them sovereignly -into Macedonia and Greece!  
It must be said that that this is not the way of the Holy Spirit always directs His work. Usually the Holy Spirit works through the normal instrument of our faith. When we have prayed and have sought counsel from His inspired Word, (and sought   counsel from other mature believers) we may assume that we are in line with His will. A Christian normally lives by faith, fed by prayer and the Word, just as our bodies normally perform by regular air and food/liquid intake. In the same way the Christian lives by regular prayer and by absorption of the Word of God, acting upon their knowledge and understanding of that Word for man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word  that comes  from the mouth  of God  (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4 ; Lk 4:4)   
But there are these unusual times when the Holy Spirit may override our plans and sovereignly redirect our ‘mission’.  When He intervenes in our lives,  it will be so strong and so clear and so inescapable, that there will be no other choice, but to follow His leading. Paul and his companions had no choice but to go to Macedonia!

People have asked me at times how I landed up in the ministry. It all began of course in God’s eternal counsel. But in time God laid His hand on me, and opened my heart, like that of Lydia (Acts 16:14) and I was converted. And then,some years  further down  the road,  the Holy Spirit  strongly directed  me through  a set of unusual circumstances, to  enrol at  Seminary in Cape Town, and there He sustained us (Marcelle and I met in my first  year) through  four years  of no guaranteed income. Then He led us with a strong calling back to Namibia prior to Namibian Independence in 1990.  But, if you had to ask me whether these strong leadings of the Holy Spirit have been my every day experience, then I must say, “No!” It has been, by and large an ordinary, daily trusting in the Holy Spirit’s leading, daily prayer, daily feeding upon His Word.  I wanted to make that clear once again before we moved on!

In our text we find Paul and his team preaching the Word of God in two cities, Thessalonica and Berea. Two things stand out, as we look at this passage. Paul's message hasn't changed, and people's responses haven't changed!  The same is true for today: the old gospel message is the same, and people are the same… therefore the effects and results of the preached gospel will be the same! The Gospel makes people glad or mad.


Paul reasoned from the Scriptures (v.2) - the O.T. Scriptures. These would have been Paul's basis of authority. He explained and proved from the O.T that the Christ (Messiah) had to die and had to be raised from the dead.  For instance in Acts 13 we have seen his liberal use of OT Scriptures to proves the person and work of Christ e.g.  Acts 13:33 (Psalm 2:1-7) Acts 13:35 (Psalm 16:8 -11) Acts 13: 34 (Isa. 55:3) etc.  
In proclaiming Jesus he would have  also spoken about His birth, life, ministry,  death and resurrection,  ascension, and the Gift of the Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2); His present reign and future return; His offer of salvation and warning of judgement.  Paul would have given a thorough account of the saving career of Jesus from beginning to end. Paul would have made a clear connection   of Jesus with the Messiah revealed in the OT Scripture: "This Jesus whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ" (17:3)

This message (gospel) which Paul preached, is the same message which we should preach - no more - no less, if it is to be the true gospel! The true gospel needs to deal with:

1.     the original plan of God for man
2.     the fall of man
3.     what God has  done in Christ to resolve man's dilemma
4.     the importance of preaching repentance from sin and turning to God in faith
5.     the importance of preaching the Judgement that is to come!


As the gospel is preached we see two responses to the gospel!  Listeners become either GLAD or MAD.  There is no third option. Fence- sitters are also against the gospel. "He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters." (Lk. 11:23)

And thus Paul's preaching as such was effective! After Paul had preached, people knew where they stood with Christ. People either came to know Jesus Christ as Saviour, or they came to hate Him and His message. Successful gospel preaching cannot be measured by everybody agreeing with the preacher. The ministry of Jesus showed that.  Jesus had thousands in attendance. Many followed Him, but when He sat them down and spelt out the implications of discipleship, many left Him (cf. Jn. 6:66). True and successful gospel preaching happens when people know where they stand with Jesus. This is what marks Paul’s apostolic preaching.

Those who are made glad by the Gospel, some Jews, some God-fearing Greeks and a number of prominent women, would eventually constitute the church at Thessalonica and Berea.

Those who  become mad as a result of understanding the implications  of the gospel , do everything in their power  to silence the gospel, and  to silence the preacher, as they did with Jesus, and here in this case with Paul and  his team. In this case the opponents of the gospel are starting a riot, and are becoming physically violent. The response depends on the setting.   In places where Christianity is accepted as a cultural phenomenon, hatred for the gospel is seen when old traditional churches   that have lost the gospel resent those churches that do preach the gospel. (Here in Namibia, some of the mainline churches resent those ‘born againers’). In another way we see it in the lives of people who attend a gospel preaching church, who are in reality fruitless, who feel attacked by the pulpit, feeling perhaps that the preacher is going at them, when in reality the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Word is convicting their own dark hearts of sin.  Their reaction is then to find  some petty argument to get ‘a riot  going’ in the church, attacking the message of the pulpit, the pastor, the leaders  - everybody except themselves , and then, after having done damage through malicious speech or other actions, leave the church in a huff ! Many pastors have felt this sort of subtle hostility sorely.  Pastors must learn that wherever the gospel is preached in truth, there is opposition! Suffering is the inevitable accompaniment of a biblical ministry. Why should they be better off than their Master? 

Trouble for Paul and his team was so great that  Paul and his companions have to fear for their life, and have to leave Thessalonica undercover at night (17:10) , and eventually also Berea (17:14).
The "jealousy" here is attributed to the Jews, who refused to believe the gospel. Notice briefly how they go about seeking to destroy this message. First of all they rounded up some bad characters; then they formed a mob. Then they started a riot in the city. See how the devil carries out his plans. He gets mobs going  through agitation and misinformation, "and then fishes in troubled waters" (Matthew Henry: p.1704) .  In that process the bringers of the gospel are often made to look as if they are the divisive elements.
But what is the answer to that? How can we make sure that we do not crucify the Son of God all over again, by crucifying those who preach the gospel to us? When we hear the Gospel preached, what should our response be?
We must be eager to hear! God help us if we come to hear God's Word preached with a fault-finding, censorious and negatively critical attitude! God help us to come to church to find fault and afterwards have "Roast Preacher" for lunch! Remember that it is God's Word we are coming to hear, and if it is the gospel preacher we are rejecting we are also rejecting the God who sent them to us. Does this mean that we must accept the message that is preached to us uncritically? By no means! This is where we can learn from the Bereans. Their eagerness to hear God's Word is balanced with a questioning mind! How can we apply that to our own lives? Learn from the Bereans
1.     Be persuaded by the Word of God.  (17:4)
2.     Receive the Word with great eagerness (17:11)
3.     But do so in a discerning manner, examining the Scriptures  for yourself  to see if   what is preached is  true  (17:11b)
4.     Believe! (17:12).

When somebody preaches the Word of God let us, as a rule, be open minded, unless of course their reputation is of such a kind that it would be sinful to listen to them. The Bible warns against any association with false teachers.
As a rule do not abandon yourself to the preacher, but to the Word. Make the Word of God your Judge. Measure the sermon by the Word of God (cf 17:11). Systematic Expository preaching is probably the safest to sit under.  
One suspects that the jealousy of the Jews w.r.t the gospel message that Paul preached was not related to the fact that they could disagree theologically with Paul, but that he upset them in their religious mind-set.  They had never really thought through or prayed through the Scriptures that Paul presented to them in a "reasoning and persuasive way" ,to see that Christ was really the Messiah.   He did not fit their cultural expectations!
Now the Bereans weren't like that. They were willing to listen eagerly. But then they would go back to the Scriptures and compare what Paul had said. See the difference? There is an open heart, and an intelligent faith. The emotions and cultural bias were pressed into the background, until the message had been evaluated! Now that is how we should receive the Word. You are by no means required to believe that which is not biblical. You are by no means required to be uncritical. But - having examined the message you must come to some sort of conclusion.
And  notice that not everyone in Berea was necessarily persuaded (particularly after some of the Thessalonian crowd had come over). But, in the words of Acts 13:48, "All who were appointed for eternal life believed". Or to put it differently:  All those into whose hearts the mysterious Holy Spirit blew (like Lydia and the Philippian jailer), believed, were baptized and joined the church.

The preaching of the gospel has these two effects: It leaves you either glad or mad.  But then  in the end  we need to understand  that  when we come to deal with the Scriptures we come to deal with Christ, and when we do so, we must accept Him or reject Him. There is no middle ground! And rejecting Him means that  there  can be no  heaven for you in eternity.  

[1] Note, the ‘we, us ’ in  16:10ff.   Luke now includes himself in the narrative 
[2]  Second Missionary Journey : Acts 15:36- 18:22

Monday, September 11, 2017


Today we are considering the second reason for which the divine visitors had come to Abraham in Genesis 18. The account begins in chapter 18:1 with 3 men appearing to Abraham at his tent in Mamre (Hebron). We had seen that these 3 men were the LORD and 2 angels, and they had come to do two things:
(i)               to reassure Abraham and Sarah  that they would  become parents  even at this late age, and so fulfil the promise given 25 years earlier in Genesis12. This miracle would now happen within a year. (18: 1- 15)
(ii)             to tell Abraham about a coming judgement upon the towns of Sodom and Gomorrah(18:1 -33).

The Judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah which will happen in Chapter 19 is a weighty matter, and very relevant, particularly in our time.   You know that the word “Sodomy” is associated with depravity and wickedness, and the word has been coined in particular to  describe the sin of homosexuality, the  sexual relationship between two people of the  same gender. This phenomenon is described   in 19:5, when the men of the city demanded to have sexual relations with the 2 angels, appearing here since 18:1 in the form of men. We will deal with this next time, and as I said, this is a matter that has attracted considerable attention and debate in this age. There is a strong and extremely  vocal lobby  worldwide (the so called  LGBT movement)  in support of  deviant sexual practices under the  protection of the  so called  Human Rights movement.   Some theologians sympathetic to this movement have worked strenuously to reinterpret this and other passages   to justify their position.

Abraham, at this point is not aware of the further agenda of His three divine visitors. In v. 16 we read that the three visitors are set for their departure, Abraham accompanying them for a while.  Their eye catches the view of Sodom, below in the plains. It is the view  of  this  town  that  gives rise to  what follows now in the rest of chapters 18 and 19. The  LORD (YAHWEH – covenant name –here the pre-incarnate  Lord Jesus Christ) , the spokesman of the group says in vv. 17-22

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed by him? For I have chosen him , that he may command his children and his household  after him to keep the law of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring to  Abraham what  he has promised him. Then the LORD said, ‘Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grave I will go down to see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me. And if not, I will know.’ So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord”.

Please note: The fact that   Abraham will become a great and mighty nation and that all the nations on earth of the earth shall be blessed by him (v. 18), has been well established by now. He has been chosen and called by God, to live differently in the world. He has been called to be a testimony and a witness to the way in which God intends families (i.e. his children and household after him) to live in the world, and it is very different from the life of the average household in Sodom.  The end to which God calls   and saves men and women from this world is that they may  reflect His holy and righteous character – to be holy as He is  holy [Lev. 19:1 ; 1 Pet. 1:15,16]

The dilemma was  that Abraham and his future offspring were living in a neighbourhood which was morally corrupted in every way. In God’s words, they were living in a neighbourhood against which there had been an outcry… and their sin was very grave (v. 20).  This news about Sodom is actually not new. Already back in Gen. 13:13 we read:  “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.”

Why did God not judge them back then? The answer is this: For the same reason as Gen. 15:16 states: “Because the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete”.  The destruction of Sodom, like the destruction of the Amorites later under Joshua is not a kneejerk reaction from God. God is patient. These are sinners in the hands of a patient God (2 Pet. 3:9). And all this is a foreshadowing of that great Day of Judgment which is yet to come, spoken of by the prophets and the Lord Jesus Christ.  
The judgement  upon  the Amorites and the Sodomites would come  because   such  deliberate, willful and continuous  sinning  was making the world  a place in which soon no human being would be safe from  such wicked , abusive people.  You may be sure that in those days, children and women and men alike   were abused in the worst of manners[1]... They were filling up their sins, and now the time for judgement had arrived. In Chapter 19 the two angels sent by the LORD will experience the terrible atmosphere for themselves.  It is not as if God needed to go down to investigate. God is omniscient.  But He is doing this for Abraham’s sake and our own sake.

The wickedness of these towns was going to be a perpetual example of wickedness in the Scriptures[2].  Jesus used this example. He said that the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida to whom He had ministered by word and miracle had had far more privileges than Sodom. (Lk 10:12) So too did the apostle Paul (Rom. 9:29) and  Peter (2 Pet.2:4-9)   and Jude (Jude 1:7). Billy Graham once said that if God does not judge  the wickedness of our generation, then He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.
So this is what Abraham hears as he walks with the LORD and his two angels.  What is Abraham’s response?


While the two angels made their way down to Sodom, Abraham   continued standing before the LORD.  And Abraham knows people down in that plain, in those towns and their vicinities.  Among them are his nephew Lot and his family. In Abraham’s mind there is also the thought of those people  that  may not  be  of the  kind  of many  in Sodom, and he makes that contrast in v. 23 : “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked ?” What follows here is a dialogue with the LORD – something which is known to us as prayer, and in this case intercessory prayer, prayer that intercedes on behalf of others, and it is wonderful to see this.  Although God has determined to judge Sodom and Gomorrah,   He allows Abraham to question Him, bargain with Him, intercede with Him, pleading as it were   for the life of the righteous in these towns.  Isn’t it wonderful to know that God is willing to hear your prayer? He wants to hear Abraham’s prayer. He is not going on with the angels at this point. His attention is fixed on Abraham who has some serious questions to present to the LORD.  
What an encouragement for us, who intercede for this city of Windhoek and for  the towns of Namibia  and  for  this world ... “O Lord, in your  wrath, remember mercy”, cried the prophet Habakkuk (Hab. 3:2). 
  • Samuel promised to intercede always for Israel (1 Sam. 12:23). 
  • The apostle Paul always prays for his churches (Eph. 1:16; 6:18 ; 1 Thess. 1:2; 2 The. 1:11 etc.); 
  • Ephaphras always struggles on behalf of the Colossian Christians in his prayers (Col.  4:12). 
  • The Lord Jesus Himself prays for us (Jn. 17; Rom. 8:34). He always lives to make intercession for us (Heb. 7:25)
  • All these expected to have the ear of God when they prayed. So must we.  If we do not believe that we have the ear of God, then we will not pray. But here Abraham had the ear of God, and he made the most of it.

And we may be assured that God will never destroy the righteous alongside the wicked. Never! And in the absence of having the exact knowledge of men’s hearts like God always does, it is not wrong for us to present holy arguments to God (Spurgeon) for the salvation of the souls.  Here is Abraham:

“Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing – to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare  as the wicked. Far be hat from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (vv.23-25).

Do you see Abraham’s argument? He   knows the character of God so very well. After so many years of walking with God he knows that God is good and kind and merciful to the righteous.  The righteous Judge of all the earth can only do right. God cannot destroy the righteous along with the wicked and remain a just and good God. He cannot sweep away the righteous with the wicked. NEVER!  So what if there are 50 righteous people in the city, acting like salt and light in such a dark and wicked place? Will God destroy that city?  No! In that case, how many righteous are needed in a city to counteract the influence of the wicked? 45, 40, 30, 20,10?  God will not destroy. But what if there were only one righteous man? That is the issue. Actually, there is none righteous, no not even one. [Psalm 14:1-3; Rom. 3:9-18]

And here we begin to see the basis of God’s justification in the Bible. Who is righteous? Only the one whom God justifies and counts righteous  Among them were Abraham and his nephew Lot, and so we see that Sodom will be  eventually destroyed because it lacked any righteous people in its midst.
Here is something for us to ponder.  
Why is Windhoek not destroyed this very day?  The answer is that God still has many people in this city, and for their sake God withholds his wrath.  That is the reason why the God-ignoring, God hating people of our city have not been destroyed  by the wrath of God. It is the presence of God’s righteous men and women, interceding men and women, which saves sinners  from the wrath of God at this time. God is merciful and the text in 2 Peter 3:9 applies again.

But God will not withhold his wrath for ever. 
A day came when the sin of Sodom did reach its full measure, and a day will come when the sins of our world will reach their full measure, and  when our sins will have reached their full measure and then the wrath of God will be revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18ff).  But even as He removed Lot and his family from Sodom before destroying it so God will deal with the world, removing the righteous and judging the rest.  There will then be a great separation in time to come and in that day you will need a more powerful Mediator than Abraham. You will need the greater Son of Abraham - the Lord Jesus Christ. Without his blood covering your sin the wrath of God will fall upon you forever .  
O call upon the God of mercy now, while it is still a day of   gospel mercy.  
Beg Him to save you from the wrath that is to come ! 

Those of you who know that He has saved you, come and celebrate at the table now set before you. Amen!

[1] Some of it is described in that horrible story in Judges 19:22ff
[2] Isaiah (Isa 1:9), Ezekiel (Ezek. 16:49),

Monday, September 4, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

We have read the first 15 verses of Chapter 18, and our key text  is found in the form of a question: "Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  [18:14]. 

You will notice that this statement is made  by the LORD  to Abraham and for  the benefit of Sarah in particular, and with it comes the announcement,   “At the appointed  time I will  return to you , about this  time next year, and Sarah  shall have a son”. Is anything too hard for the Lord?”  This  is an exciting question, and  very relevant  for those times  when we would  despair, wondering whether  there is a way out  of that difficult situation in which we might find ourselves. But I am running ahead of myself. Let’s see what happens here, step for step, as we learn valuable lessons along the way.

Our attention is repeatedly drawn to the great dilemma in the life of this married couple, Abraham and Sarah.  When we meet Abraham in Genesis 12, we read of God’s amazing promises to this man:I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” [12:2 cf. 13:15-17; 15:5; 17:2,4]. The dilemma is this. How will Abraham become a great nation? His marriage has produced no offspring, no children, despite the promise. How is that?  This fact repeatedly brings about a deep crisis   of faith for both.  A point of frustration is reached in Genesis 16   where Sarah suggests (and Abraham does nothing to contradict her) that they try another route. She suggests that they have surrogate children through Sarah’s servant girl, Hagar.  This   apparently  was  a familiar custom for barren couples in ancient  Middle eastern societies.   

It is very clear however, that God   will not be helped out by man’s plans. God has a plan, and He is committed to it.  Humanly speaking   Abraham and Sarah are past child bearing age  (17:17, 18:13), but  God is God, and for this reason, nothing is impossible for Him, and hence our text, “Is anything too hard for the Lord”,  becomes utterly relevant.  “Nothing is too hard for  you!”  This is Jeremiah’s  conviction, when he buys  a field, i.e. real estate at a time when the king of Babylon was besieging  Jerusalem   (Jer. 32:17). “Nothing is too hard for  you!”  This is the vital point of our passage.  And ultimately this is true of the message of the whole Bible.
Nowhere is this clearer than when we consider the DESPERATE plight of man. In Adam’s fall we sinned all.  Every human being is a sinner facing a holy and just God, and therefore every human being stands condemned before this holy God. ”The wages of sin is death” [Rom. 6: 23].  This is extremely bad news for mankind, and the question is asked by Paul in Rom. 7:24,Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” It is a question asked by a man desperately seeking for a solution. The answer is given in Rom. 7:25,”Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He has understood that he is doomed to an everlasting separation from God, and there is no thing on earth, no balm in Gilead to heal and cure the sin infested soul of man. There is no thing that can   avert the sure wrath of God.   But Paul, like John the Baptist is helped to look at Jesus, and he can exclaim, “LOOK! The Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world“(Jn.1:29,36).  Man’s extremities are the beginning of God’s opportunities.

Annie Johnson Flint (1866- 1932) suffered from  a crippling rheumatoid arthritis and other debilitating illnesses, and she understood this. From her perspective of perpetual pain and suffering  she wrote this wonderful  hymn. Take note specifically of the second verse:

1.      He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, 
      He sendeth more strength when the labours increase; 
      To added afflictions He addeth His mercy, 
      To multiplied trials, His multiplied peace.

2.     When we have exhausted our store of endurance, 
      When our strength has failed ere the day is half done, 
      When we reach the end of our hoarded resources, 
      Our Father’s full giving is only begun. 

3.      Fear not that thy need shall exceed His provision, 
      Our God ever yearns His resources to share; 
      Lean hard on the arm everlasting, availing; 
      The Father both thee and thy load will upbear.

4.      His love has no limits, His grace has no measure, 
      His power no boundary known unto men; 
      For out of His infinite riches in Jesus 
      He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.

This is the God of Abraham and Sarah.   When they were beyond hope, the Father’s full giving had only begun.

18:1:  This is  the God (LORD - Covenant Name – Yahweh) who in the heat of the day meets Abraham  by the oaks of Mamre[1],  in the form  of three men. It is what we call a ‘theophany’, a ‘God appearing’. We find a number of these in the OT.[2]  In this particular instance the LORD appears in the form of three men. Some commentators have thought that this was a manifestation of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That seems unlikely.  Abraham speaks here to the pre-incarnate Lord Jesus (whom he addresses here initially as ‘my Lord’ – Adonai v.3). He  appears here with two angels in a human form.  In   Gen. 18:13 this Lord (Adonai) is then called the LORD (Yahweh) and in Genesis 19:1 the other two persons are identified as angels.

It  appears that there must have been a gradual dawning  upon Abraham that he was in the presence of supernatural beings, and so  with this hindsight, the inspired writer is able to say that the LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre” (v.1). So it is the LORD YAHWEH in the company of two angels . All three have a body capable of eating and drinking. This was the case also of the resurrection body of Jesus [Lk 24:42,43].  In Matthew 8:11 Jesus speaks of a day when in the kingdom of heaven many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

These three heavenly visitors were coming to reaffirm God’s will to Abraham ,and specifically   for the benefit of Sarah. In this passage we see that Sarah is the one here that really struggles to believe the promise of God.   She needs a reassuring visit from the Lord.  
Don’t you need this from time to time?

But before  a specific word is brought to Sarah, take note of this.  
Abraham’s first response is to minister to the immediate physical needs of his unexpected guests. This is fairly common even today of Eastern culture.   And so Abraham sees to it  that their feet are washed and a  good meal is prepared (18: 4-8).What wonderful hospitality  is shown here, and we cannot help but think of that passage in  Hebrews 13:2[3],  "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for  thereby  some have entertained angels  unawares."  This is what literally happened to Abraham that day.  Hospitality is a Christian grace, and it is required of elders [1 Tim. 3:2 ; Tit. 1:8] and  indeed of  all Christians [Rom.12:13; 1 Pet.4:9). By serving others we serve Christ (Matt.25:40). Having noted this wonderful response to strangers  we now  focus on the purpose of this visit.

The purpose was, as indicated earlier,  to strengthen Sarah's faith. Abraham had previously received a good number  of  visits  from God in terms of  assurance  regarding his future, but Sarah, who was to be the mother of the son of promise really wasn’t doing well at this time. Maybe this was one of Abraham’s great weaknesses as a husband. Did he communicate the previous assurances   from God to Sarah, or was he guilty of the typical husband  thing?   Have you husbands  ever come home and been greeted by your wife, "You didn't tell you that so and so was in the hospital."  And your typical male response was, "Sorry, I forgot".  Did Abraham forget to hold the promises of God before Sarah and so to encourage her? Possibly.

But then  also think of this. 25 years had passed since the promise was first given, and   maybe Sarah had just given up. There was no hope left in her. “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” [Prov.13:12]. 

Whatever the case was, Sarah needed a divine visit, and divine encouragement,  and  if  what Hebrews 11:11  says is true  then we know that this visit had done it! “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she had considered him faithful who had promised.”   

Are we not all in need of a divine visit and divine encouragement from time to time? And has God not encouraged you by means of a visit from someone whose words to you,   with hindsight, were like that of an angel?  Is not that also the purpose of the Word preached on Sunday? Are our worship services not meant to be times of divine visitation with our God?   

If God thought that Abraham and Sarah needed  to  be frequently  reminded  of  His promises,  then this is also true  for you and I.  Oh how we need to have regular assurances from God concerning the  meaning of this earthly  pilgrimage, which can be  so hard and long  at times,  when all we want to do  is to curl up like  Elijah  up under a tree and hope to die.   We need regular assurance of the total trustworthiness of all that God says He will do for us. One way in which God does this is by means of having His Word preached o us.

And so, in the context of enjoying Abraham’s hospitality comes the question: “Where is Sarah, your wife?” (v.9).The visitors are indicating that this visit was intended for Sarah.  In this culture it was not common for women to eat with men, and so Abraham says, “She is in the tent”, and now follows that great promise in v. 10 from the LORD: This time next year I will return and Sarah will have a son.’ Being a tent, Sarah is able to hear this and she laughs to herself (v. 12), but it is not a happy laugh.  Can God make a worn out, 90 year old woman  able to  conceive a son?  That is the issue facing Sarah.  And God is here in person to minister to her. That, incidentally is how saving faith and regeneration comes to every believer. Every conversion is a time when Jesus personally  calls individuals  to  believe in  Him,  when they  are personally convicted  to forsake  their  sin  and  to follow Him. 
Sarah laughs the laugh of unbelief . And God responds to her in v.14, "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" Thankfully Sarah's  lack of faith  does not deter the Almighty. The Lord knows her heart.  He knows where she is at.  There is doubt and there is DOUBT, is there not?  There is the doubt of the unrepentant and arrogant person, but this is not Sarah. She believes in God, but for her  it has been  a long hard struggle, and  now God has come to help Sarah’s unbelief. He says that she will have a son.  Mary, you will remember had a similar dilemma . Being a virgin and receiving and doubting the news  that she will have a son , is assured  by  these words from the angel Gabriel: ”Nothing is impossible with God”(Lk. 1:37)

Nothing is too hard for God. Apply this for a moment to your own situation.  Can God  cause your hardened relatives and friends  that you have been praying for so long  to be born again?   Believe in the promise of Luke 11:13: “If you then , who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, How much more will the heavenly Father  give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.“

This wonderful  chapter  reveals to  us a gracious and patient Lord who keeps sending His messengers to us to preach the gospel so that we shall believe and so that we shall be encouraged sufficiently in this  often difficult earthly pilgrimage. 

This chapter  reveals  to us that God is utterly committed to  the fulfillment of His Word , and  that He will  come to us at times personally to affirm and reaffirm  these promises to us, giving us adequate strength to do what he says. 

[1] Genesis 13:18 – The oaks of Mamre were at Hebron
[2]  Genesis 12:7-9 ;  Genesis 18:1-33;  Genesis 32:22-30 ; Exodus 3:2 - 4:17 ; Exodus 24:9-11; Deuteronomy 31:14-15 ; Job 38–42.  Frequently, the term “glory of the Lord” reflects a theophany, as in Exodus 24:16-18; the “pillar of cloud” has a similar function in Exodus 33:9. A frequent introduction for theophanies may be seen in the words “the Lord came down,” as in Genesis 11:5; Exodus 34:5; Numbers 11:25; and 12:5.
[3] See also  Matthew  25:35 : "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited Me in."

Monday, August 14, 2017

Genesis 17 - “Faithful God!”

God is utterly faithful to His people … even when our experience says otherwise.  And God, if He is our God requires us to be faithful.  We can be faithful to Him because He is first faithful to us. This is the great lesson before us this morning.

The biggest crisis in Abram and Sarai’s faith is that God has promised them an offspring and nothing appears to be happening.  Here is some perspective.  There are 13 years between chapters 16 and 17.We know this because Ishmael, born in Chapter 16 is now a 13 year old teenager (17:25).  Abram was 86 years old in 16:16 and he is now 99 old in 17:1,24.   Sarai is   90 years old (17:17).  Altogether it  has been  about 25 years since the LORD had first made a covenant promise to Abram and Sarai regarding a covenant offspring (12:1-3).  By now both knew that humanly speaking there was no chance for Sarai to conceive a child. We have seen in Chapter 16 that human scheming (Abram’s temporary lapse of faith) only made things worse.  Abram and Sarai began to entertain the thought that a covenant child could be produced by their own scheme.   Even in 17:18 we find Abram still bargaining with God, hoping somehow that Ishmael  might become  the future heir of the covenant.

But God had remained very quiet in those years between Chapters 16 and 17. There  were no  special appearances  and no further  assurances  with respect  to  the promise  of  an  offspring[1] .  One almost begins to wonder whether God was finished with Abram, following his great lack of faith in God’s promises in Chapter 16.  But God, who entered into a covenant with Abram in Chapter 12 is indeed faithful. He would not be quiet forever.  And so we read in 17:1,2

“When Abram was 99 years old  the LORD appeared   to Abram  and said to him: I am God Almighty (EL SHADDAI), walk before me and be blameless, that  I may make my covenant between me and  you , and  may  multiply you greatly.”

God had not forgotten Abram, and Abram’s faithlessness in Chapter 16 did not cause God to abandon him.  Quite on the contrary, God spoke again, and confirmed His covenant to Abram again.  In fact, covenant is a key word in this chapter. It’s a key word in the Bible. God’s faithfulness to you and I, rests on His New Covenant in Christ. The Covenant  is the most basic expression of God’s faithful character to us. It is powerfully seen in His dealings with Abram. Here in the 17th chapter, the word ‘covenant’ is mentioned 13 times. And God is committed as ever to fulfil His promise to Abram.

God’s silence in the life of a true believer must never be interpreted as a negative sign.  Just because God is not seen, heard or felt is not a sign that He is not there.   After I left my parent’s home, living in another city, there were long periods in which I did not hear from them nor speak to them. But I knew that they were there, and I knew that they were still my faithful parents!    

And we must not judge God’s faithfulness by our perception of time. God’s timing is clearly quite different to ours.  Peter reminds us   that for God a thousand years is like a day (2 Pet. 3:8). Whereas 25 years must have seemed like an eternity to Abram and Sarai, it wasn’t so for God. Impatience with God is the result of the fall, and has become one of our greatest enemies. Waiting on God is hard. It leads to making great mistakes because we are forever trying to formulate shortcuts to fulfil our desires.  It seems to me that our own generation driven by a culture of ‘instant gratification’ is exceptionally impatient. People want answers and solutions and they want them yesterday, and they want them according to their own imaginations and desires.  
But God knows what He is doing, and God is always on time: “ But when the fullness of time  had come , God  sent forth his Son...” (Gal. 4:4,5). Christianity is about long waiting. It took 2000 years after the promise was made to Abram for the Lord Jesus to come. Many in Israel,   for many years were longing for the Messiah’s  appearing (e.g. Lk 2:25,38; 1 Pet. 1:10),and even then many were not satisfied with His appearance.

If God is silent, there is a good reason. And if God has spoken once, He actually does not need to repeat Himself. This is especially true in Abram’s case. Babies are always a gift from God and many, many parents even in our day have had to wait for their gifts to arrive in God’s good time. Without God, Abram could do nothing to bring a covenant child into the world.  He tried, but look, where it got him. 

By grace, Abram’s faithful God appeared and He spoke to him again. This is the first time in the OT  that  God introduced Himself as EL SHADDAI ,  ‘God the Almighty’ – the God of the impossible, the  sovereign God , the God  who can suspend the laws of nature, and who can  make a woman bear a  baby in her nineties.  This God says to Abram, “walk before me and be blameless. Abram’s holy and faithful God requires him to be faithful and to be holy as He is holy (Lev.11:44; 1 Pet.1:16). Abram can walk blamelessly and upright before God, because the God who called him is also the God who equips him. “His divine power has granted to us all things  that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him  who called us  to his own glory and excellence.” (2 Pet.1:3). When a person becomes a believer, he is no longer a slave. He can choose to say ‘no’ to ungodliness, (though he may, like Abram also compromise).  But God calls us to be faithful, and it is our walk with God is the expression of our faith in Him.

17:2  “That  I may make my covenant  between me  and you , and may multiply you greatly.” In Abram’s mind there is still the thought that God might do this through Ishmael (17:18), but Abram’s thoughts are not God’s thoughts. God’s thoughts are bound to His  covenant and central to these covenant thoughts   for Abram is  a child called  Isaac,   born  of the covenant marriage  between Abram and Sarai (17:19)

17:3:  “Then Abram fell on his face” (see also 17:17). See Abram’s response - a mixture of worship and fear and disbelief – “Shall a child born to a man who is hundred years old?  Shall Sarah who is ninety years old bear a child?”  The answer is YES! The faithful  God is still where He  was  when He first  promised to make Abram “the father of  a multitude  of  nations” (Ch. 12 à17:4) and  He says it again in  17:5 and again in  17:6 . “I will make you into nations.”

17:5:  That is the reason why Abram’s name (exalted father) was changed, because God promised to make him a ‘father of a multitude’. That is what the name ‘Abraham’ means. Sarai’s name is changed to Sarah. Both her names mean, ‘princess’.  But there is a difference. Her father had named her ‘princess’ but he had no power to make her one. God alone had that power, and she , like the promise  to  Abraham would become the mother of many nations, and  kings would come from her (17:16) God fulfills what he promises. He is faithful.
Their new names were an indication that things were beginning to happen.   By taking on this new name Abraham and Sarah were beginning   to live as if the fact had already happened. 
How little did  Abraham  understand  the  immensity of that promise, and despite  that  He was enabled  to  become  the father of faith, the father  of  all those that would believe God  (all those  who would be born into the covenant),  a  father  of  a  people from  every nation, tongue and tribe. How little did Abraham know, and yet  he believed and  the Lord Jesus  credits him with a faith that  saw  far head  in John 8:56: “Your father, Abraham, rejoiced to see my day; and he saw it, and was glad.”  Abraham was enabled in His faith, because the God that called Him was faithful to Him.  The basis of our faith is the faithfulness of our God. God is faithful. He leads us and keeps us and He bears with us even when we struggle to fully believe.
It clearly wasn’t easy for Abraham.  He trusted God and yet it wasn’t always easy to see the way ahead. By this time Abraham had entertained the thought that Ishmael might live under God’s blessing (17:18), but he was becoming content with a substitute for the blessing of God.  His hopes were focused on Ishmael.  He desperately needed a reminder that this wasn’t it.  Oh faithful God, thank you for adjusting our cheap visions!  Thank God   that  from time to time He revives  our  feeble  faith by meeting  with us and  by  causing His Holy Spirit  to  make  us able  hear His Word in a much more profound and  intimate manner, stirring up renewed  faith, hope and love  in our souls, so that  we are  weaned from our small ambitions and become more  fully conformed to His plan and purpose.

And so Abraham is promised at this time afresh that he would be exceedingly fruitful (17:6) and, that nations and kings (and ultimately the King of kings) would come from his and Sarah’s union. He is promised afresh that God’s covenant will extend to  his offspring (17:7 repeated in 17:8,9,10,19). This covenant promise , we see in the NT extends to the family of true believers  in all the world and among all nations , tribes and tongues.  This covenant promise  includes  the  promise of the land of Canaan  (17:8), which is,  as we  see, fulfilled  in the NT in  the  eternal kingdom. All  true believers , all the sons and daughters of Abraham   will  be gathered  in that sacred land, the kingdom of Heaven,  the renewed   creation in which  God rules  and reigns  without dispute -  “ I  will be  their God…”. 

Then God gives Abraham a command:  “As for you, you shall keep my covenant” (17:9). And God stipulates how the keeping of that covenant should look like. God’s faithful covenant grace to him demanded a visible response:  Every male born to his offspring was required to be circumcised.  This outwards sign was to be a mark of belonging to the covenant community, the company of the faithful believers in God.  And yet we know that circumcision has in itself never saved anyone. Ishmael the thirteen year old son of Abraham was circumcised on the same day as Abraham (17:26), and yet he showed no evidence of a heart renewed by grace. Ishmael bore the sign of the covenant, but he lived in hostility toward all his kinsmen. (Gen. 16:12). The Old Testament hope  was that,  with the coming of the Messiah, the hearts of every member of the New Covenant family would be circumcised. In fact,  Paul told the Galatians, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6) and, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Gal. 6:15).  Circumcision, or it’s NT equivalent, ‘baptism’, was an important sign of belonging to the believing community, but it needed to be preceded by a  true  circumcision  of the heart, or in the case of the NT, a baptism in  or with the Holy Spirit.  

So then, this faithful God speaks again to Abraham.  He reassures   him that the promise is not via Hagar but via Sarah, his princess. She shall bear a son, ‘Isaac’. His name means, “he laughs” and even the date of his birth is announced: “at this time next year” (17:21), twenty-six years after God first told Abram that he would have a son. Ishmael too will become a great nation but he is not the one through whom God will establish his covenant. Isaac alone will be that one.

God only has one way to enter into the covenant which leads to spiritual blessing and ultimately eternal life. It is by faith in His promises, and from a NT perspective   it is very clear that your only hope is in the Son of the New Covenant - the Lord Jesus Christ! He is that door, that gate, the way, the truth the life. Follow Him faithfully all the days of your life.  

As we come to the Lord’s table to celebrate His great work for us,   you need to remember that this table is for those that have been embraced by the faithful God of the New Covenant. This table is for those that have in turn embraced him in love and with thankful hearts, and who in dependence upon divine grace, seek to live faithfully before Him. Amen 

[1]  Gen. 12:7; 13:15,16;  15:4,5

Monday, August 7, 2017

Acts 14: 1-23 ”A Tale of Three Cities - The Gospel brings Salvation and Division "

“A Tale of Three Cities”, with apology to Charles Dickens who wrote the classic ,”A Tale of two Cities” (1859), a historical novel which is set in London and in Paris and the French countryside at the time of the French Revolution(1789). Incidentally, this book  has been listed  the second bestselling book in the history of literature[1] (The Bible, the all-time best seller,  and other religious  or political books excluded). Approximately 200 million copies have been sold.

The book begins with these famous opening lines:  “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

As I was researching  the  “Tale of two Cities”  on the internet, I saw  that   a book was in fact released this year  with the title “A Tale of Three Cities” ,  written   by  Bettany Hughes. This book is about  Istanbul, a famous city in modern day Turkey, the Byzantion of the ancient past (660 BC) ; the Constantinople that was the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire  (330 AD)  and seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which then became the  Istanbul  of the Muslim Ottoman empire (1453 AD) - three cities in one!  The cities in both books, London , Paris  and Istanbul   have  been associated with turbulent  times. 

Turbulence ! This  is the word  which we now  wish to use as we   observe  what the gospel  does as it invades these three cities,  Iconium (14:1-7), Lystra (14:8-20) and Derbe (v.21). These  cities  in Acts 14 are all found   in  modern Turkey.

I draw your attention  to  the  key text   in verse  22 (Paul and  Barnabas)  strengthening  the souls of  the disciples, encouraging  them to continue in the faith, and saying  that through many  tribulations  we must enter the kingdom of God.”   Here is something that we need to settle in our minds today. We have somehow developed the idea that the gospel  must bring joy, peace and happiness and paradise   into the world.  Where did we get that idea from? Only shallow reflection can come to such a conclusion and our text  certainly does not concur with such a sentiment. And neither does the Lord Jesus. 

Hear these words from   Luke  12:49-53 :
49 “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! 50 I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! 51 Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. 52 For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

John 15:18-23:  18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin,[a] but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.

Now it is undoubtedly true that the gospel brings joy, peace and happiness to those that believe in Jesus, who are truly freed from their sins, who have been predestined by God, loved, adopted, who have become co-heirs with Christ and citizens of heaven.  But it is also true that this same gospel that liberates some also  brings  hatred, division  and unhappiness   to those  that will not accept the gospel, and who will in fact  come to hate and oppose the gospel.  To Matthew Henry is attributed the saying ,  “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay.[2] And  Spurgeon , citing this text  adds, “the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins” [3]. And so we observe  from the testimony of the Bible and from church history  that the kingdom of God  comes with  joy and  it comes amidst sorrow, bringing about, as Dickens  said, the best and  the worst of times.  

That is the  matter which  now consider  as we  take a brief look at  Chapter 14, and I submit  to you that this is a typical  experience , one that we must expect  also in our endeavours  to  bring the gospel  to  this generation  in its  many and varied contexts (family, friends, work colleagues, society at large).  This has been the pattern in the book of Acts so far. In our previous chapter we had seen this. The Gospel which Paul and Barnabas proclaimed had been accepted by Sergius Paulus the governor of Cyprus, but resisted by Elymas the magician. (13:1-12). They had preached the gospel in Pisidian Antioch   amidst great interest, but they were driven out of the city by the Jews filled with jealousy, stirring up persecution against Paul and Barnabas (13:13-52).

1.     Iconium  14:1-7
And so we see the pattern continue in Chapter 14.  The gospel is proclaimed in the Jewish synagogue, and a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. BUT the unbelieving Jews stirred up the gentiles and poisoned their minds… (14:2) – there you have it in one sentence.  There we find the effective preaching of the gospel and the immediate poisoning of the minds of the crowd by the enemies of the gospel.
We further note that the message of the gospel is a word of grace (14:3) and as such it should have been accepted by everyone, BUT note what the gospel accomplishes:  The people of the city were divided by the gospel (14:4). Attempt was made by both gentile and Jew to mistreat and stone Paul and Barnabas (14:5). This caused them to flee to Lystra  and Derbe  some  75 kilometres  to the east. Note the number of times Paul and the apostles had to flee for their lives, simply because of the gospel.

2.     Lystra and Derbe (14:8-20)
Luke focuses on what  happens in Lystra and gives little  insight  into what happened in Derbe, but  we believe  that the patterns are typical.    
The healing of a crippled man (14:8-10) almost sounds like a repetition of Acts 3:1ff , the story of the crippled man at the temple gate called ‘ Beautiful’ in which Peter and John  were the agents of divine healing.  What is significant is the extreme reaction of the crowd in Lystra in response to this healing.  From worshipping Paul and Barnabas as Hermes and Zeus as being gods, they  later stoned Paul – and again we must observe ,… for the sake of the gospel.

John  Stott, in his commentary gives some helpful insight into the mind-set of the people in Lystra.[4] About 50 years earlier the Latin poet Ovid had written a literary piece called “Metamorphoses”, relating to an ancient local legend. The story goes that the supreme god, Jupiter (Zeus to the Greeks) and his son Mercury (Hermes) once visited the hill country of Phrygia, disguised as mortal men.  They sought hospitality but were turned away a thousand times. At last they were offered lodging in a tiny cottage, by a couple called Philemon and Baucis. Later the gods rewarded them, but destroyed the homes of those who would not take them in by a flood.  It is reasonable to suppose that the people of Lystra knew this story, and so they would have been anxious   not to suffer the same fate as the inhospitable Phrygians.  
It is interesting to note how Paul and Barnabas responded to this false worship of them in vv.  15-17. This  is probably  an excerpt from the message that they spoke to these people.  And since these people were pure pagans, there is no reference to   the Scriptures (as in  Paul’s sermon in Ch. 13 in the context of a Synagogue)  because these people didn't know the Bible. So he begins where they are. He starts with general revelation. He establishes a point of contact with them, and he begins by telling them about the Creator, who made the heavens and the earth, the God who provides rain and fruitful seasons, and who satisfies the heart with food and gladness. (14: 16,17). It is clear that in Paul’s  mind there is  not different God in Lystra  and another one in Jerusalem. There only one God. But note, Paul is not able to get to the gospel of Jesus before  hostile  Jews came from Antioch  and Iconium,  and they persuaded the crowds.  Paul is dragged outside of the city and he's left outside of the city dead (14:19). So Paul and Barnabas were never enabled to finish  their   gospel presentation in Lystra on this occasion, but completed the work  as they revisited theses cities  on their return.

Isn’t it amazing that   Paul , after having been stoned  was able to preach the  gospel the very next day in Derbe, and in this  instance it is reported that  they had made many disciples (14:21) . Did it not have something to do with prayer of faith in 14:20?

And then they retraced their steps  back to Lystra, Iconium and  Pisidian Antioch , “strengthening the souls of the  disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” (14:22). There we  are -  Gospel triumph and Gospel opposition. Both are marks of a biblical  Gospel  ministry.

Summary and Conclusion

You may say, ‘I don't experience such trouble and opposition and difficulties’.  Let me ask you plainly then: Is this it because you never speak about Jesus? Is this because your life says nothing about Jesus, and is a challenge to no one?
I think that one of the major challenges for the modern church and the modern Christian is that they want to be accepted by the world so very desperately. They do not want to be different.  They do not want to be counter cultural. The average modern Christian in our society appears to want to blend in with the world and be the friend of the world.
When this happens  we  may in fact not  see  much suffering  for the sake of the gospel  in  our  ranks, for  our  enemy the devil knows that he  has you and your  church in his possession. Makes you think, doesn’t it? Well, it mustn’t just make us think. It must make us weep and repent and return to Christ’s design for His followers, who were never called to enjoy a cushy life, but who were designed for a life of spiritual fruitfulness.  See how many converts as well as mental and physical bruises Paul and Barnabas   left in their wake in this first missionary journey.  It is all part of our calling. And it will be part of our eternal reward when we finally enter the kingdom of God.